Eric Alterman | The Nation

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Opinions Are Like...

I am racing my book deadline today. Here is the most excellent Table of Contents:

Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama
Introduction: You’ve Got A Lot of Nerve To Say You Are My Friend.
Chapter 1: The Autumn Weather Turns the Leaves to Flame
Chapter 2: Don’t Know What I Want But I Know How to Get It
Chapter 3: If That’s All There Is, My Friend, Then Let’s Keep Dancing
Chapter 4: What It Don’t Get, I Can’t Use
Chapter 5: I Read the News Today, Oh Boy
Conclusion: It's Here They Got the Range And The Machinery For Change
Post-Election Epilogue

Ok, back to business:

New Think Again column: Extremist Liberals? Say What?
New Nation column: West Bank Stories
Weekend Daily Beast column:  "Don't Ask, Don't Think" (or something)

Meanwhile, in Marty news, get this Druze-hating:

Marty Peretz, "Ahmadinejad At The Lebanese-Israeli Border—Another Obama Debacle," 10/15/10:
For some time, the Obama administration feigned support for the Sunni center dominated by the Hariri many-billions kleptocracy which allied itself with the mostly Maronite Christians and the Druze. But Christians, including those associated with a neo-fascistic general Michel Aoun, also defected to the Shi’a, as did the congenitally untrustworthy Druze, always ready to make a deal they will break.

and this

"Harvard Student Government Calls on President Faust to Investigate Peretz Fund, Condemns University for Honoring Him" Cambridge, Oct. 19—Harvard’s Undergraduate Council voted overwhelmingly yesterday in favor of a bill calling on President Drew Faust “to establish a commission of concerned faculty, students and administrators to investigate” the decision to honor Martin Peretz. The Undergraduate Council is the representative body of Harvard’s more than 6,700 undergraduate students.

The “Student Response to Peretz Fund Act,” passed by a vote of 26-7-4, was presented to the student government by the Harvard Islamic Society, the Black Students Association, Latinas Unidas, the Society of Arab Students and the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

Leaders of these groups met with Harvard President Drew Faust earlier this month, and requested that the administration investigate the decision to honor Peretz. When Faust made clear that she was not willing to investigate the decision, student leaders decided to bring the matter to the Undergraduate Council.

After gaining the support of the UC President and Vice President, the bill passed two council committees before reaching the floor. Students gathered at 7:00pm EST in Emerson 305 to show support for the legislation.

Last month, the Social Studies committee inaugurated a fund in Peretz’s name despite widespread opposition from students, faculty and alumni. Peretz made the now-infamous remarks that “Muslim life is cheap, especially to Muslims” and that Muslims are not worthy of First Amendment protection. Peretz also wrote that "Latin societ[ies]" enjoy "characteristic deficiencies" such as "congenital corruption" and "near-tropical work habits." Regarding African Americans, Peretz wrote that "So many in the black population are afflicted by cultural deficiencies" and that "in the ghetto a lot of mothers don't appreciate the importance of schooling."

(Speaking of which, has that courageous scourge of liberal cant Jon Chait had anything to say yet on Marty Peretz’s hate filled fulminations in his magazine yet? If so, I’ve not noticed.)

And I see Harper’s new Deputy editor was my sister's boyfriend through most of high school. He had a band that wanted the gig of my bar mitzvah, but they were not very good and it went to another band that auditioned with an incredible version of "One More Saturday Night" which remains the ur bar mitzvah dance song, in my opinion.

"Turn on channel six, the President comes on the news,
Says, "I get no satisfaction, that's why I sing the blues."
His wife say "Don't get crazy, Lord, you know just what to do,
Crank up that old Victrola, put on them rockin' shoes."

We paid them a hundred bucks.

Anyway, James got much better and played in some good bands, and then wrote some good books, particularly one about working at Amazon in the beginning, and translated Orianna Fallaci, which, as I recall, was a nightmare, and got hired by CJR and now Harper's. Great guy....


The Twilight Zone: Season 1 [Blu-ray]

The first season of the Zone is an amazing document. It’s a precursor to what we think of as the sixties back before such things were imaginable. And while it was awfully hit or miss, even the misses are really interesting, if often discomfiting. This is 36 episodes complete with Rod Serling's original promos for the following week's episode. Among them, "Time Enough at Last" starring Burgess Meredith as the last survivor of an atomic blast, sadly, like yours truly, dependent on his glasses to read. "The After-Hours" starring Anne Francis as a department store shopper haunted by mannequins; We get little playlets starring Ed Wynn, Everett Sloan and Ida Lupino, Roddy McDowel, Ron Howard and the great Jack Klugman. The transfer here is way superior to the DVD version, which I owned until I got this. (Turns out the kid’s bat mitzvah tutor is a big fan.) And Serling’s pitch to advertisers for the Pilot is really interesting as well.

Here are the extras with the new Bluray release.

· Extremely rare, never-before-released unofficial Twilight Zone pilot, "The Time Element," written by Rod Serling and hosted by Desi Arnaz
· 19 New Audio Commentaries, featuring The Twilight Zone Companion author Marc Scott Zicree, author and film historian Gary Gerani (Fantastic Television), author and music historian Steven C. Smith (A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann), music historians John Morgan and William T. Stromberg, writer/producer David Simkins (Lois & Clark, Dark Angel), writer Mark Fergus (Children of Men, Iron Man), actor William Reynolds and director Ted Post. Interviews with actors Dana Dillaway, Suzanne Lloyd, Beverly Garland and Ron Masak.
· “Tales of Tomorrow” episode "What You Need."
· Vintage audio interview with Director of Photography George T. Clemens.
· 1977 syndication promos for "A Stop at Willoughby" and "The After Hours."
· 18 Radio Dramas
· 34 Isolated Music Scores featuring the legendary Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith and others! Set also includes:
· Audio Commentaries by actors Earl Holliman, Martin Landau, Rod Taylor, Martin Milner, Kevin McCarthy, and CBS executive William Self.
· Vintage Audio Recollections with actors Burgess Meredith and Anne Francis, directors Douglas Heyes and Richard L. Bare, producer Buck Houghton and writer Richard Matheson.
· Rod Serling Audio Lectures from Sherwood Oaks College.

Now here’s Reed.

Reed Richardson writes:

Lose It, Don’t Use It

Here’s a simple test for Altercation readers. See if you can find the flaw in the argument below:

“[A]t the end of the day, [journalists] have to be professional—and that means avoiding actions that create the perception that they are taking sides in political controversies, including elections.

Specifically, mainstream journalists can’t put a political sign in their yard or carry one at demonstrations. They can’t donate money to candidates. They can’t sit on a school board. They can’t participate in political rallies. They can’t lobby, and they can’t become partisan activists.

To me, it’s a small price to pay for the privilege of being a journalist.

NPR is not restricting its staff’s freedom. It’s protecting its credibility as a news organization that tries to give its audience fair, non-partisan coverage.”

This ponderous quote came from NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard’s column last Friday, in which she bemoans the “lousy job” the blogosphere did covering her network’s awkward release of a memo banning all NPR staff from attending the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallies next Saturday. I wrote about this last Thursday and was ready to move on, that is, until I read the jarring paragraphs above at the end of her column.

The matter-of-fact way that Shepard juxtaposes an enumerated list of forbidden forms of political expression that all “mainstream journalists” must adhere to next to a declarative statement that these restrictions somehow DO NOT constitute limitations on those same journalists’ freedom is unsettling, to say the least. I would almost give Ms. Shepard the benefit of the doubt and say her summation was inadvertently inartful, since she wedges in between the two aforementioned paragraphs an admission that journalists (at “objective” news organizations presumably) are indeed being asked to make a sacrifice with regard to individual political advocacy in exchange for their livelihood. Nevertheless, even if her language was a mistake or imprecise, the incident is telling and represents a clear distillation of the mainstream media’s myopia when it comes to the ethics of individual political advocacy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m actually a fan of NPR, although I don’t listen as much as I used to since I no longer commute to work by car anymore. And as I said, NPR’s policies, generally, and Ms. Shepard’s comments, specifically, aren’t anything different than the conventional wisdom found at nearly every other major news organization in the country.

But here’s another test. Compare this NPR news report on House Minority Whip Rep. Eric Cantor from a few weeks ago and this Jon Stewart interview with Cantor a week ago. Granted Stewart gets nearly a half-hour of airtime with Cantor and NPR’s Andrea Seabrook gets only four-and-a-half minutes, but even so, the difference between the two is stark.

The NPR story talks about how Cantor and his “Young Gun” Congressional counterparts “know they can’t be the same old GOP,” but spends literally no time trying to figure out where or how their proposed policies would actually differ from said “old GOP.” The group’s so-called “thinker,” Rep. Paul Ryan, has released an economic “Roadmap for America’s Future,” which might be pertinent to explore in the article to test his supposed smarts (especially if it turns out that his plan, if enacted, would achieve none of its claims of fiscal responsibility and instead fulfill two of the longest-running fantasies of Republicans). but it gets no mention at all. Indeed, the reader/voter gets almost nothing of value out of this kind of story other than a little inside-baseball talk about a potential GOP leadership power struggle in the next Congress. Of course, what exactly they would fight about or disagree on, who knows? And, frankly, why should you care?

Turn to Stewart’s interview, however, and you're rewarded with an intellectually serious, if rhetorically free form, discussion that actually digs into the policies that Cantor espouses, policies that would actually impact a voter watching and help him or her make a better decision come Election Day. Of course, in Cantor’s case, you come away from the interview with a much clearer idea that all his talk of limited government and concern for the middle class is just that, talk. What’s more, when Stewart refuses to budge without straight answers on his questions, Cantor’s true ideology finally is revealed and gives the lie to the unsubstantiated spin about his leading a different kind of GOP than was offered up in the NPR article.

Stewart's not bound by fears of keeping hidden his personal opinions or biases, his political leanings, such as they are, are transparent and well-established and his audience can judge the fairness of his interview with Cantor accordingly. Yet, in this very unscientific comparison, I would submit that he's committed a more valuable act of journalism than Seabrook, who I'm sure has never donated money to Cantor (or his Democratic opponent) and, in my personal opinion, is a very good reporter.

Of course, this is not to say that incisive, policy-focused stories that go past empty campaign sloganeering aren’t being done on NPR or in other mainstream media outlets. They are. But they’re too often the exception to the rule in a profession that seems increasingly under institutional retreat from the communities it purports to serve. If journalists are incessantly trained to view all forms of political involvement except voting (and even that act has its notable detractors among the Beltway press), as something foreign, off-limits, tainted even, it follows that, over time, their approach to covering the subject is liable to be accordingly affected. Stand apart from something long enough, in other words, and there’s a good chance you’ll start to see yourself standing above it. Take away someone else’s freedom in pursuit of some pure, unattainable level of objectivity and there’s a danger in losing sight of the real purpose of journalism: telling the truth to better serve our democracy.

Editor's Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Nobody Told Me There'd Be Days Like This...

My new Think Again is called “Collapsing Infrastructure? Who Knew?"

We have an expanded edition of Alter-reviews today.  Here goes:

Library of America: New Releases:

Philip Roth
Novels 1993-1995
Operation Shylock • Sabbath’s Theater

The Library of America is entering one of the great periods of contemporary American literature, offering those of us who still collect “brick and mortar” books a chance to honor (and perhaps even re-read) some of the best American writing anywhere, anytime.  In that category I would unhesitatingly put Philip Roth’s  Operation Shylock, published in 1993, which I would argue, is Roth’s most under-rated book. It is not quite his best book. That would be The Counterlife. But something about the Holy Land inspires this man—remember the wonderful section in Portnoy upon the discovery of Jewish everything—well this is a far more complex and in many respects bitter book. It contains the most searing indictment of Israel I have ever read, put in the mouth of a top Mossad agent. It also contains ten or so beautiful pages about Barney Greengrass. It’s a complicated work, with almost as many questionable riffs as successful ones, a meditation on the meaning of identity as well as the purpose and passions of post-modern Judaism, Israel-diaspora relation and this being Philip Roth, sex, sex and more sex. It’s a great novel in every sense of the word, including its failings.  Also included in the collection is Sabbath’s Theater, (1995) perhaps Roth’s dirtiest novel ever and among his best reviewed. (The publicity material reminds that of the leading literary critics of the English-speaking world, Harold Bloom and Frank Kermode, have proposed Sabbath’s Theater as the finest American novel of the last quarter century.)  I did not love it, much as I admired its audacity. (Perhaps it was too close to home, say the people who know me.)  Anyway, trust me on Shylock.

Saul Bellow
Novels 1970-1982
Mr. Sammler’s Planet • Humboldt’s Gift • The Dean’s December

Nobody considers Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), Humboldt’s Gift (1975), and The Dean’s December (1982) to be Saul Bellow’s best books with the possible exception of me, sometimes.  No question Augie March is more influentl. And though my recollection is a bit hazy, Herzog may be the ideal of the form. (I plan to teach it next semester and find out.) But these three books had Bellow in complete command of talents and writing with a kind of self-confidence to which only he had ever earned.  I much prefer Humbolt and Dean’s December; the latter, together with More Die of Heartbreak, being Bellow’s most underated. But I’ve been writing about Sammler, for my history of liberaism, so here’s some of that.

Bellow found New Leftists to be largely immature and idiotic.    He spoke at San Francisco State College, a hotbed of California radicalism, during that spring.  A student strike was mounting as he came to campus.  After finishing his talk, a creative writing professor, Floyd Salas, rushed into the room and accused him of wanting to “make the university a genteel old maid’s school.”  When the novelist’s response to another questioner didn’t please Salas, he yelled out, “You’re a fucking square.  You’re full of shit.  You’re an old man, Bellow.  You haven’t got any balls.”  Bellow immediately plotted to put this episode into his next novel.  As he told a friend, this novel became “a dramatic essay of some sort, wrung from me by the crazy Sixties.” In some respects, the novel could be seen as the human cost—or result—of liberalism gone out of control; the land brought to you by what Bellow would memorably term in another context, “the Good Intentions Paving Company.”

The central character of said novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) is the seventy year old “child of a second marriage, born when his father was sixty.”  A Polish Jew, he survived the Holocaust but lost his wife in the process, and lives amidst the sharpening shards of civilization that was New York City at the end of the 1960s. The doubling of welfare rolls throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the increased amount of crime, the flocking of middle class Jews away from the city to the suburbs – all of these things weighed heavily on the moral tones of Bellow’s hero.   “New York makes one think about the collapse of civilization, about Sodom and Gomorrah, the end of the world.  The end wouldn’t come as surprise here.  Many people already bank on it,” he muses. (277) 

Sammler is a novel filled with nasty, dyspeptic observations on New York City, particularly the minorities who appear to be taking it over in in the name of the sexual revolution spouting mindless, contentless leftist slogans that mask their own voracious appetites for sex and power, mixed with sloth—as if Norman Podhoretz’s infamous February, 1963 essay, “My Negro Problem—and Our,” had sprung to life as a kind of personal Jewish intellectual nightmare. In a scene that would offer critics and admirers alike ample argument for Bellow’s bravery sour malevolence, Arthur Sammler is followed off his Riverside Drive bus by a black pickpocket who traps him elderly, half-blind protagonist against wall and then, as a kind of warning of unspeakable (but clearly sexualized) violence, he takes out his penis and waves it at Sammler: "a large tan-and-purple uncircumcised thing—a tube, a snake ... suggesting the fleshly mobility of an elephant's trunk."  The novelist Scott Turow writes that he admires Bellow for “his perspicacity in recognizing the lethal admixture of crime and sexuality that was already being adopted as an underground ideal of black masculinity,” but it clearly bespoke a different world than the one of civil rights marches and the now forgotten “dreams” of Martin Luther King.

The novel mocks the counterculture and sexual revolution and those liberal coddlers of the new sensibility of the sixties.  For instance, when Sammler tells his niece that he witnessed a black pickpocket in action, she asks: “Was he a revolutionary?  Would he be for black guerilla warfare?” (17)  Angela, a young cousin of Sammler’s, is a wildly erotic figure, and she recounts her orgiastic adventures for Sammler who is simultaneously excited and disgusted, wondering if America is now at a stage when “all the repulsive things in history are not so repulsive?” (147).  His reflections on sexual liberation turn into a mean-spirited rant: “Millions of civilized people wanted oceanic, boundless, primitive, neckfree nobility, experienced a strange release of galloping impulses, and acquired the peculiar aim of sexual niggerhood for everyone.  Humankind had lost its old patience.” (149)

One of the novel’s climactic scenes comes when Sammler speaks at Columbia University about his life-long interest in progressives of yesteryear, H.G. Wells and George Orwell.  Inspired, undoubtedly by his own experience at San Francisco State College, Sammler finds that “most of the young people seemed to be against him.” (42)  “Hey!  Old Man!” one shouts at him.  “You quoted Orwell before…  You quoted him to say that British radicals were all protected by the Royal Navy?  Did Orwell say that British radicals were protected by the Royal Navy?”  “Yes, I believe he did say that.”  “That’s a lot of shit.”  (42)  The young man goes on, “Orwell was a fink.  He was a sick counterrevolutionary.  It’s good he died when he did.  And what you are saying is shit….  Why do you listen to this effete old shit?  What has he got to tell you?  His balls are dry.  He’s dead.  He can’t come.” (42)  Bellow notices a rupture in the history of the left, separating old from new, and generational conflict that turned into warfare and personal attack.  Ironically, and undoubtedly unknowingly, he mimics Friedan’s critique of the sexual revolution replacing old-fashioned political reform, except that Bellow’s Sammler has surrendered to the enemy. “All this confused sex-excrement-militancy, explosiveness, abusiveness, tooth-showing, Barbary ape howling,” he complains. (43)   The sour old man’s rant is the central voice of the novel, rendered, if not sympathetically, then without apology. “I am getting old,” Sammler observes, but “this liberation into individuality has not been a great success.” (208) 

It is also cause for celebration that LOA has picked as its first ever publication by an economist, John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society and Other Writings 1952–1967.

American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power • The Great Crash, 1929 • The Affluent Society • The New Industrial State. The latter three are among the most influential books of the period and some of the best writing by any economist ever. Whether they are exactly “true” is a matter of much contention. What they are is unarguably important and interesting.

And with H. L. Mencken:

Prejudices: The Complete Series (boxed set), LOA has put together the perfect gift for some graduate or birthday boy or girl who wants to grow up to be a nonfiction writer of any kind.  They cover the period between 1919-1927 and there is nothing else like them, particularly for understanding the culture and politics of the period.

Have you seen Disney’s Oceans? It’s by the French fellow Jacques Perrin, who made Winged Migration, together with somebody named Jacques Cluzaud. The kid and I watched the bluray the other night and the wonderousness of it made me more furious than I have been in a long time about the idiocies of our politics that make it impossible to keep us from destroying the planet.  The rest of the time we spent wondering how in the world (get it) did they get all that stuff captured on camera. Apparently, the crew spent four years crossing the globe, according to the press material, “from the salt-encrusted marine iguanas of the Galápagos Islands to the silky fur seals of South Africa. In other sequences, horseshoe crabs scuttle across the sand, jellyfish pulsate through the deep, and sardines sparkle as the sun catches their scales.” How bad can it be? It comes as a BR/DVD combo, something I don’t understand. Who needs both?

The big news of the week is the John Lennon 70th Birthday-apalooza. (Want to see some post-Beatle John video, go here)

Yoko, who is still not one of my favorite people, even if you restrict the population to the two blocks surrounding my previous apartment, has overseen the release of the following:
Eight Lennon solo albums (though a bunch of them are filled with Yoko). Here’s what’s new(ish): 

A hits compilation in two editions titled Power To The People: The Hits
A 4CD set of themed discs titled Gimme Some Truth
A deluxe 11CD collectors box with the remastered albums, rarities, and non-album singles, titled the John Lennon Signature Box
Double Fantasy, in a newly remixed 'Stripped Down' version in an expanded 2CD and digital edition pairing the new version with Lennon’s original mix, remastered.

All of them have been digitally remastered from Lennon’s original mixes by Yoko Ono and a team of engineers led by Allan Rouse at EMI Music’s Abbey Road Studios in London and by George Marino at Avatar Studios in New York.  All of the remastered titles will be packaged in digisleeves with replicated original album art and booklets with photos and new liner notes by noted British music journalist Paul Du Noyer. Soon to come are:

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970)
Imagine (1971)
Some Time In New York City (1972)
Mind Games (1973)
Walls and Bridges (1974)
Rock ‘n’ Roll (1975)  

Milk and Honey (1984)
What to say: Power To The People: The Hits gathers 15 of Lennon’s most popular songs. It’s not nearly enough.

Gimme Some Truth, packaged in a slipcase with rare photos and a new liner notes essays by Anthony DeCurtis, presents 72 of Lennon’s solo recordings on four themed CDs:

‘Roots’ – John’s rock ‘n’ roll roots and influences
‘Working Class Hero’ – John’s socio-political songs
‘Woman’ – John’s love songs
‘Borrowed Time’ – John’s songs about life

It is actually enough. Lennon’s solo work was very uneven and this helps you discover a few gems you probably never noticed before along with just about everything you might want, with generous helpings of his best work, if you don’t mind the fact of the albums being messed with and the songs moved around quite a bit.

The John Lennon Signature Box is a deluxe 11CD and digital collection of the eight remastered albums, a disc of rare and previously unreleased recordings, and an EP of Lennon’s non-album singles. They are housed within a deluxe whie box including a collectible limited edition John Lennon art print and a hardbound book featuring rare photos, artwork, collages, poetry, and new liner notes by DeCurtis. It is well more than enough and it is not cheap but I’m sure it will feel that way for completists.

As for the indvidual albums themselves, if you prefer to go that way. Plastic Ono Band is a masterpiece; I am embarrassed by the number of superlatives I am tempted to employ in its praise. “Imagine” is pretty great too, though it contains the worst rock n roll song of all time. (Though to be fair, “Stairway” is a close contender.)  “Mind Games” is pretty good too. I kinda like Rock n Roll, though Phil Spector pretty much ruined it and John was too wasted while it was being recorded to know even where he was. The John Lennon parts of the “stripped down” version of “Double Fantasy” surprise me with their power these days. But they are going into the Ipod and I will keep the cd on the shelf because of you-know-who. There are some other good songs on the rest of the albums and the sound quality is sharp. Lennon has had quite a lot of repackaging, Yoko juggles the vaults as she mines them—so let your own experience and collection be your guide.

Janeane Garofalo: If You Will

So someone asked me to take a look at Janeane Garofalo’s new standup show. I was not initially eager. I had big crush on Jeanine when I first discovered her in the early days of Larry Sanders, but we went in different directions.  Sometimes I still loved her, but that was most often when she was playing characters I loved, like that press secretary on the final season of TWW. I always felt Jeanine was a good hearted person, and a brave one. But she was also aggressively nuts for a while. One night, when I was co-hosting with her on Air America, substuting for the comedic genius Sam Seder, Jeanine and some woman went on and on about how Neocons had probably plotted and carried out 9/11. I doubt she really meant it, but I had to get up out of the studio and leave during that part, to calm down and resume the show. Anyway, I want to like Jeanine, and she’s always really nice to me when we run into one another, but you know, that 9/11 moment really creeped me out. 

All this is by way of saying that this new act is actually great. There are a few gross moments, a number of which deal with the sainted Natalie Portman, but they come at the end and you can just stop the disc early. The rest of it is Jeanine in a return to her very best form.  It begins with her describing a Starbucks person saying to her: “No offense, but you look like Janeane Garofalo.  What ever happened to her?”  and goes on from there. I don’t know if it qualifies as a comeback. She’s been doing some pretty high-profile work of late.

If You Will is a performance that demonstrates the skill and the confidence of a comic who has been at it for a long time. Garofalo is as seasoned as they come, in spite of the fact that this her first comedy special in over a decade, and the ease with which she delivers her material makes it clear just how natural a comedian she is. This most recent show has her continuing to show her unique sense of humor – a mix of astute observations, self-deprecation, and running commentary – all while offering up real insights about herself.

Reed Richardson writes:

Disenfranchise Players

In a nation whose rhetorical birth literally began with the phrase “We the People,” one would think that even suggesting these selfsame people should trade away, give up, or be stripped of any of their Constitutional rights of political expression would be anathema to our country’s ideals.

Lately, however, there seems to be an inexplicable zeal emanating from some of the “freedom-loving”-est corners of our country for collectively ridding everyone of a few pesky rights as well as selectively stripping the few of some supposedly undeserved ones, all as part of an rather Orwellian campaign to somehow strengthen our democracy through fewer Constitutional protections and less political participation. (I’m leaving it to others to explain in detail how these ideas are often not only stupid and naïve, but almost universally counterproductive to their adherents’ own espoused political goals, let alone democracy.)

Boil these various conservative efforts at political disenfranchisement down to their essence, though, and what you really find is an a priori mistrust in people not government. Indeed, what many of us consider one of democracy’s main features—that, at least in principle, every American has an equal say or vote in how we should be governed—is, to this retrenchist movement, a major bug in our political system. If left unchecked, we the people, in their minds, can’t be trusted to do more than vote for the candidate or party that promises to implement popular policies—Better access to health care! Cheaper ways to pay for college!—to make our lives a little easier, an outcome that sounds exactly like what reasonable people might want out of their government, but that actually threatens the very survival of the entire American political system!

This is a core belief that turns democracy on its head, by essentially positing that a citizen’s franchise as well as his or her other Constitutional rights, in the wrong hands, represents a conflict of interest. That someone might go to the polls to support a person or a plan that might end up benefiting them in some way isn’t a banal, every election occurrence, instead it is akin to outright stealing from the American taxpayer. (Because, as everybody knows, only half of Americans pays taxes and they’re the only ones that deserve to get their money back.) Read through a recent version of this argument, which, just so happens to agitate for disenfranchising public employees (and yes, I realize who the author is, but another “leading light” from that same institution is also trying to make the same, troubling case here), and see if you don’t come away from it hearing a chillingly familiar echo of the same political justifications that, when taken to the extreme, were once used to prop up a century of Jim Crow laws, excuse lynchings, and before that, protect slavery itself.

Of course, once mainstream journalism wholly bought into the notion of objectivity to sell more papers over a century ago, it too has, over time, come to subscribe to eerily similar arguments about the conflict-of-interest dangers brought on by individual political advocacy.

Yesterday morning, NPR demonstrated just how ridiculously far it was willing to stretch this notion of political piety in the service of avoiding any apparent conflict of interest when an internal NPR memo, authored by senior vice president for news, Ellen Weiss, was leaked to Romenesko. In it, Weiss reiterated the network’s general newsroom ethics policies regarding political activity and then specifically forbade staff from attending Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s upcoming “Restore Sanity” and “Keep Fear Alive” satirical rallies in Washington, D.C. at the end of this month.

After a torrent of questions and criticisms in the press, it became clear that few were really buying the thin-on-details explanation originally offered by Weiss, so NPR posted an update last night, which sought to defend the decision against the backdrop of the recent Restoring Honor and One Nation rallies with some curious, no-but-yes logic:

“It's different with the Colbert and Stewart rallies; they are ambiguous. But their rallies will be perceived as political by many, whatever we think. As such, they are off limits except for those covering the events.”

Of course, perceived conflicts of interest do matter to listeners and readers and rightly so, up to a point. But who wouldn’t agree that an NPR producer or editor joining thousands of others at a rally during his or her off-hours poses far less of a risk to NPR’s institutional reputation than if, oh, I don’t know, a well-known NPR personality writes a memoir about racism—a topic that brings with it unquestionable political baggage—and then gets invited to spend nearly a full hour across all four NPR-produced broadcasts promoting that book?

Well, NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard might be one, since in her professional opinion—given, finally, in the 36th paragraph of this column on Tuesday—there was no conflict of interest on the part of the network when NPR Morning Edition co-host Michele Norris did exactly that late last month. (Shepard did concede, at least, that Norris received preferential treatment in being booked on all four shows.)

Coincidentally, vice president of news Ellen Weiss also appeared in Shepard’s column, where she reassured readers that “while Michele’s appearances were all of great value to the audience…normally we do a better job of internal communications in order to avoid so much overlap on guest appearances."

Good to know that Ms. Weiss has settled the issue of the value and appropriateness of Norris’s appearances for us, despite what were clearly many complaints and comments from listeners saying otherwise. And where, pray tell, was this self-assuredness on the network’s part when it came to setting policy this week for the Stewart and Colbert rallies? In that case, just the prediction of, rather than any actual listener complaints about bias or conflicts of interest  was enough for them to clamp down on their editorial employees’ rights.

To be fair, NPR isn’t alone in this kind of draconian behavior, it’s symptomatic of the prevailing conventional wisdom among the media. But journalism’s willingness to have, as a default position, an ethical approach that demands sacrifices of political expression first and—maybe—asks questions later (and even then flouts its own supposedly sacred rules) doesn't make it any less palatable than when it's done under the banner of some sham sense of "limited govrernment." Besides, there's a good reason why all of us, and maybe journalists especially, should exercise our right to free expression more often and maybe attend a political rally or two—we might just learn something.

Eric notes: Ellen and I studied for the American history AP exam together. Just saying…

The Mail:

Ray Lodato
Chicago, IL

Allow me a little prognosticating on my way to a point about the media.  I think the big Election Night narrative is going to be gridlock, mostly because the Senate will remain comfortably Democratic. As I see it, the Republicans will pick up Arkansas, Indiana, North Dakota and (sigh) Wisconsin.  The Democrats' best hope for flips are Kentucky and Alaska.  Even if the Dems don't flip any seats, however, the GOP gains will still leave at least 55 Democrats standing in the 112th. Most of the races that we've all been watching are reverting back to electing the candidate from the party that currently controls them.  It's quite possible that California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington will all elect candidates from the present incumbent party. Now, granted, many of the new Republicans who replace other Republicans are certifiably nuts.  I'm not saying that the next Congress is going to be roses and candy--just that there will be more Democrats there than we think. But the media spin is going to be most interesting.  Fox will, of course, see the GOP gains as a repudiation of Obama.  But will the other networks note that only recently, the Republicans were planning on a Senate majority?  Or that Democrats are likely to win several significant statehouses, which could (with the proper redistricting) overturn the Republican House majority in 2012?  No--besides gaming the presidential election (bonus to the first pundit who notes on November 2nd that "that campaign starts tonight"--my guess is Halperin), they will note that the Democrats are defending far more seats in the Senate in 2012 than the Republicans, and that their meager gains put them in the driver's seat to gain the majority in January 2013. I don't know how you put up with it.

Edward Furey
New York

Why don't gays attack Don't Ask Don't Tell on Second Amendment grounds? Although the term "bear arms" has been falsely construed to be equivalent to "packing heat," in fact it refers to serving in the armed forces of the nation. It asserts the right of "the people" to bear arms (serve in the armed forces and Militia), not "straight people." Perhaps in memory of Molly Pitcher at Monmouth in the Revolution, it says "the people", rather than "men" have a right to serve. In fact, the whole Constitution might be considered one of the first "politically correct" gender neutral public documents in American or world history. Where the Declaration says things like "all men are created equal," the Constitution and early amendments carefully avoid gender, referring to either "the people" or "persons" without regard to sex or sexual preference.

Editor's Note: You can write to Eric Alterman here.

Barbarians on the TV Screen

My new Think Again column is called “Just What Exactly Is Fox News?” and it’s here.

The new Nation column is  “Barbarians at the Gate,” and that’s here.

In German, on the future of journalism.

I see Jonathan Chait has a blog post blaming the Palestinians for the failure of Middle East peace talks, here.

You know it’s weird. Chait blogs all day every day at TNR, taking on targets on the left and right.  He’s known for fighting dirty, of course. When he didn’t like something I said, he published my salary at one of my jobs, but he wasn’t known for his reticence, at least until now.  But do a search like this one: “Peretz, Islam” under Google Blog and you’ll get nearly 25,000 hits. Take out the word “blog” and do a straight Google search and you’ll get over 600,000 hits. And yet, believe it or not, not one of them will contain a post by the fearless Mr. Chait taking a position on whether or not the owner/editor-in-chief of The New Republic is guilty of bigotry against Arabs and Moslems (as well as blacks and Latinos). Suddenly the cat has got his proverbial tongue. Of course, it’s not as if everyone at TNR has a responsibility to denounce or defend the boss. (Though kudos to John Judis for having done so in the past.) But Chait has adopted the public position as the scourge of all hypocrisy, particularly liberal hypocrisy. And yet somehow a person who occupies one of the most important places in the liberal discourse, Marty Peretz, somehow escapes his attention despite garnering as I said,  more than half a million Google hits for his curious views about Islam.  I  have no idea how much Chait is paid to blog at TNR and I don’t really care to find out, except to note that from what I do know about the salaries over there, it is probably not enough to buy the silence of someone who poses as a moral tutor to the rest of us…

I went to see Hitchens debate Tariq Ramadan at the 92 Street Y the other night. It was a wonderfully entertaining night. Christopher, I was pleased to see, was in splendid form and Ramadan was a worthy opponent, who made a great deal of sense, given the difficult position in which he was placed. (I noticed Christopher went rather easy on Judaism and Israel in this crowd, though he is a fan of neither. Anyway, here is Marc Tracy’s report, which would differ from mine, but he did it and I didn’t.

Now here’s Reed:

Reed Richardson writes:

Editorial Boardom

It is a sad commentary on our democracy when a number of this fall’s political candidates have decided that their best chance for a successful campaign involves not doing much traditional campaigning at all. Participating in debates and taking questions from campaign reporters is just so 1998 it seems, while massive self-funded expenditures and TV-ad saturation, however, are now as hot as Lady Gaga. In fact, one candidate seems to be intentionally avoiding any kind of public interaction with voters at all, save for a single bizarre TV ad that, if this politics things doesn’t work out (and polls strongly suggest it won’t), shows she might have a promising career as an artist making ponderous and strangely surreal video installations. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are replacing anachronistic outreach tools like yard signs and direct mail and this week it became clear that there’s one other box on the traditional campaign checklist that candidates are now more and more likely to leave unchecked: courting newspaper editorial boards for political endorsement.

Of course, Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry’s very public refusal to seek newspaper editorial board endorsements earlier this week isn’t without precedent this year. But his brazen dismissal of this campaign season staple did seem to startle his jilted partners and occasioned some serious whining among the editorial board crowd about how corrosive this stance was toward the citizens of Texas and how much of a threat it represented to democracy in general. Well, forgive me but I find this outrage a little too self-serving and disingenuous. After all, the Tyler [Texas] Morning Telegraph, which ran a front-page editorial in last Sunday’s paper blasting Perry’s refusal to stop by their conference room, didn’t see fit to exercise the same level of outrage and concern about our democracy when their Governor hinted at a Tea Party rally last year that Texas might well want to secede from the union because of President Obama’s policies.

Indeed, the tetchiness of the newspaper industry’s response to Perry is telling, it intimates at what most of us already know—that newspaper political endorsements make no sense, serve no real purpose and are long overdue to disappear.

In fact, the little research that exists about the influence that newspaper endorsements have on elections suggests their impact is negligible. This 2007 Pew survey of political endorsements found that a local newspaper’s endorsement had a net influence rating of zero on voters, the same result as found in a similar Pew survey from 2004. Indeed, most of the political endorsers tested in the Pew surveys actually had a deleterious effect on their preferred candidate, turning off more people than they attracted. (Even Oprah, who just broke even in overall influence in 2007, couldn’t do better than newspapers.) In fact, your minister, priest or rabbi’s political clout rated the highest among the choices given, with a net positive rating of 6%, although the survey seems to overlook the inconvenient fact that federal law prohibits tax-exempt churches and other places of worship from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.

More scientific studies of newspaper endorsements are a tiny bit more generous, however. This 2004 MIT study, for example, found that:

“[Newspaper] endorsements typically increase the vote share of the endorsed candidate by about 1 to 5 percentage points…But studies that exploit changes in endorsements and votes for specific politicians over time tend to find much smaller benefits, about a 1 to 2 percentage point gain.”

And it’s worth pointing out that, even if true, the modest ballot-box benefit a candidate might gain from a newspaper’s political endorsement this November is probably still less important than other, completely random election-day factors, such as a candidate’s being listed first on the ballot, which this Univ. of Vermont study pegged at being worth around an extra three-and-a-half percentage points during the past two midterm elections.

So why bother? Well, as this American Journalism Review article from 2004 makes clear, political endorsements are like “vestigial remains of those tendentious days of journalism, an era typified even in its waning years by outrageous displays of partisanship that unabashedly sluiced from the editorial pages into all parts of the paper.” (Indeed, the article points out that as recently as 1936, the arch-conservative and stridently anti-FDR Chicago Tribune had that newspaper’s switchboard operators answering the telephone just days before the election with the phrase, “'Hello, Chicago Tribune, only 10 days left to save the American way of life.'" )

Certainly, the editorial board members cited in the AJR article don’t offer up much of a compelling and coherent explanation for continuing the practice. Here was the then-editorial page editor of the San Antonio Express-News, Lynnell Burkett, giving her newspaper’s reasoning:

“‘We're not trying to tell you how to vote,’ says Burkett, ‘but we're giving you our opinion based on the research we've been able to do.’

“We can use the endorsement process, Burkett says, "to position ourselves in terms of credibility, because anybody can say anything, frankly, on the Internet and…on television and talk radio.... If we present ourselves as the source of opinion with no ax to grind, as those who spend our time researching and writing about issues, it seems we can use this as a strategic advantage."

The logic here is quite puzzling, as it uses one of the supposedly sacred tenets of journalism, objectivity—i.e., having “no ax to grind”—to justify a wholly subjective action—endorsing one political candidate versus another. It’s patronizing and elitist as well, since, as NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen points out in the same piece, there’s no such thing as an expert voter in a democracy. Plus, if you strongly suggest that your motives for endorsing in the first place are driven by less than pure, democratic reasons—what’s does “strategic advantage” even mean in this instance?—one has to wonder how far this adherence to credibility burnishing and brand-building goes. Does that explain, for example, why newspapers back 80% of incumbents today versus 56% of them 50 years ago, as the MIT study found? Has the endorsement process now boiled down to ‘Who’s got the best shot to win and make us look smart?’

In addition to these unseemly questions about motives, another underlying implication here is that readers who dine solely on a newspaper’s straight campaign reporting might be starved for the proper political sustenance when it comes to making an informed choice on election day. What’s more, it’s well documented that for much of the public, these political endorsements have the effect of painting an entire newspaper with the same partisan brush. But wait, an editorial page editor might say, that’s an unfair characterization because we take steps to ensure that our editorial board opinions don’t cross over and influence the news side—look instead at our actual reportage for proof that we can both have opinions on the editorial page and keep them out of our straight news coverage.

That's a fair and imminently reasonable argument. Sadly, mastheads don’t seem to practice this same common-sense approach when it comes to their own employees, as that lower, appearing-biased-is-biased standard is the exact same reasoning that newspapers like the New York Times use to justify their draconian ethics guidelines. Why can’t a newspaper’s staff also be judged on the merits of their individual work product rather than be subject to a broad brush policy that prohibits almost all individual political expression? After all, they may perfectly capable of separating their personal political beliefs from their work. Indeed, it’s ironic that a paper like the Times, which invests so much importance in its thousands of editorial employees never displaying a political sign in their front yard (or Facebook wall), goes and sticks a giant political billboard on its editorial page at the end of every election season. And who pays the price for this glaring case of actual bias appearing in the newspaper, those same reporters and editors whose journalism careers would be seriously jeopardized if they dared to even wear a campaign button.

At the end of the AJR article, Project for Excellence in Journalism director Tom Rosenstiel, said the various reasons given for continuing political endorsements all boil down to “good intentions.”

“‘Done well,’ [Rosenstiel] says, ‘editorial endorsements get us very close to what journalism is all about, which is citizen debate. Done poorly, of course, it's just a big institution muscling, pushing its weight around.’”

However, a journalism profession struggling to earn back the confidence of a skeptical public increasingly resembles the latter in an era where the newshole is larger, wider and deeper than ever before. Yes, the public should welcome any attempt to make sense of this often overwhelming deluge of information, but a hybrid, two-headed newspaper model, where obsessively neutral, he-said, she-said news reporting is hermetically sealed off from editorial opinion and analysis is simply no longer viewed as authentic or trustworthy. As yet another example of this aging journalism architecture, political endorsements, despite any good intentions by the editorial boards that make them, simply lead our democracy down the wrong road.

The mail

Clay Landon
Hermosa Beach
I was bitterly resentful of Christopher Hitchens because of his move to the right politically and his lambasting of the Dalai Lama. When I say bitterly resentful, I mean that I held a grudge against the man, literally wishing for his slow, painful death.  I write to tell you how ugly and stupid I feel for those wishes. I loved your column on Hitchens and my prayers go out to him and his family. I like these feelings that I have for Hitchens and they all came from your column. So thanks for that, Eric.

Editor's Note: You can write to Eric Alterman here.

A Few Facts About Farmworkers

A few facts about farmworkers: nearly three-quarters of US farmworkers earn less than $10,000 per year, and three out of five farmworker families have incomes below the poverty level, according to the most recent findings of the National Agricultural Workers Survey.

In addition to low wages, farmworkers rarely have access to workers' compensation, occupational rehabilitation or disability compensation benefits. Only twelve states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands provide farmworkers with workers' compensation to the same degree as other workers. Farmworker coverage is optional in thirteen other states but not required by state law.

Even though many farmworkers fit eligibility profiles for programs such as Medicaid and food stamps, very few are able to secure these benefits. Migrant health centers estimate that less than 12 percent of their revenues are derived from Medicaid, and it is believed that fewer than 25 percent of eligible farmworkers receive food stamps.

Migrant farmworkers’ health status is at the same standard of most third world nations, while the country in which they work, the United States, is one of the richest nations on earth. Unsanitary working and housing conditions make farmworkers vulnerable to health conditions no longer considered to be threats to the general public.

Poverty, frequent mobility, low literacy, language and cultural and logistic barriers impede farmworkers' access to social services and cost-effective primary healthcare. Economic conditions make farmworkers reluctant to miss work in order to seek health services. Farmworkers are not protected by sick leave, and they risk losing their jobs if they miss a day of work.

These circumstances cause farmworkers to postpone seeking healthcare unless their condition becomes so severe that they cannot work. At this point, many farmworkers must rely on expensive emergency room care for their healthcare needs. Migrant health centers provide accessible care for farmworkers, but existing centers have the capacity to serve fewer than 20 percent of the nation's farmworkers.

OK, now feel free to complain about Stephen Colbert—well, read this and then complain all you want.

Congratulations to Heather MacDonald for this powerful and, given where she lives and works, brave piece about the evil that is Forbes magazine and Dinesh D’Souza.

The Panel, though I’m not actually sure I said this.

I came across this new collective culture blog done by some really young people called TheNewInquiry.com, and I suppose it won’t cost me anything to plug a couple of pieces on it, below. So take a look:

1. "Resistance, Addiction and the Digital Natives," by Rob Horning.

Rob questions the notion that one can be "addicted" to the Internet. The "digital natives" (children who grew up with the Internet) view the web as a location of labor and production. The only distinction between these kids and their supposedly addicted elders is that young people have not yet begun to understand themselves as a brand. Here's a quote:

[Digital Natives] are able to resist the internet’s vortical pull through sheer indifference. It wouldn’t occur to them to consider themselves addicted to being online anymore than being addicted to riding the bus to school everyday. It is simply part of the mundane and necessary infrastructure of social life. But the article suggests also that kids must be trained to view the Web as a site for immaterial labor and for anxious self-production. The teens in the study seem to prioritize their social life in the real world and use internet-facilitated communication merely to supplement it. They have not yet become aware of themselves as a brand.

2. "Intimacy as Text; Twitter as Tongue," by Helena Fitzgerald.

Helena explores what kind of "intimacy" is possible when so many of our relationships are digitally mediated. A quote:

For all the internet’s much-noted permissiveness and available pornography, the increasing presence of computers in our private lives enables a new, overwhelming prudishness—something akin to a second age of letters.


Internet socialization is far closer to a 19th century mode of intimacy than to a dystopian future of tragically disconnected robot prostitutes. There’s a Jane Austen-ish quality to online social life. The written word gains unmatched power and inarguable primacy.

I am a moron in four parts.

I am a moron I

I am a moron, II

I am a moron, III, IV:

You Are a Dork
Peretz is as bad as Beck and Limbaugh? You are such a stupid dork, you are going to be forgotten. Peretz just says some true things about Arabs, which bugs the hell out of you and all the other liberal dopes, for some reason.
Who Cares
Boy was that Hitchens text the most boring thing ever or what. Usually when writing about a wit the writer steals some of his best lines. What you've done is write what is no doubt the worst and most boring article on Hitchens ever. Good work.

In the meantime, here’s Reed:

Reed Richardson writes:

I Know What I Know

H.L. Mencken’s famous quote “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public” has perhaps always had a similarly cynical political corollary (i.e., “Nobody ever lost an election…”) that could also apply. That’s because our country just isn’t as bright or knowledgeable as it thinks it is, whether we’re talking about financial literacyscience, our nation’s history, the Constitution or—as we learned this week—religion.

Of course, this is a phenomenon a fellow Altercation contributor has well limned in the past, but this election season seems to have magnified our nation’s embrace of the slow, the ill-informed, and the intellectually incurious to a point where facts and figures are being smothered under a furious fusillade of bald-faced, outright lies. This new Know-Nothingness is why, this campaign season, on any given day, the American public can hear a major political party’s elected representatives and/or candidates make ridiculous, stupid, craven and downright dangerous comments. Whether it’s:

--conflating the terms "Muslim" and "terrorist" in a campaign ad,

--claiming that Social Security is somehow unconstitutional,

--promoting the idea that racial discrimination and the Civil Rights movement should have been left up to the free market to fix,

--stating that evolution has been disproven because monkeys aren’t changing into humans before our very eyes,

--shamelessly opposing a $7 billion health bill for sick and injured 9/11 responders as an unaffordable, “massive entitlement program,” when it’s little more than a rounding error on that same party’s plan to extend $700 billion in tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.

With these folks as one major party’s choices for political representation, it’s little wonder that many voters significantly underestimate how much wealth is in the hands of the few at the top (which, if they did know, this study suggests would drive the conversation about taxation in a much more progressive direction).  Of that they remain mired in ignorance about the recently passed healthcare reform, since they don’t even understand how existing healthcare programs like Medicare or Medicaid are funded (even though they know they like them better than private insurance). Or that only one in eight Americans know that 95 percent of taxpayers, in fact, did get a tax cut from the federal government thanks to Obama and this Congress, despite what some bloviating disc jockeys try to say to the contrary.

This miasma of misinformation can be blamed on a lot of things, from an overwhelmed and underfunded education system to an angry and disaffected populace suffering through an abjectly disappointing economy, but the media have to shoulder some of the burden here as well. Too often, larger policy issues get obscured by the press’s fondness for horse-race coverage—the who’s up and who’s down stories that obsess over sound bites and opinion polls but give few column inches or minutes of air time to parsing the pros and cons of the policies themselves. With this as the standard journalistic fare, it’s perhaps not surprising, yet nonetheless still ominous, that younger Americans, who are less smitten by the press’s holier-than-thou objectivity model, are increasingly tuning out the news altogether.

Indeed, the traditional media’s complicity in letting what will surely be a handful of unadulterated cranks being elevated to power on Capitol Hill this November is nothing short of a tragedy for our democracy. I take hope, however, that this, too, our Republic will survive, because as none other than Mencken pointed out nearly ninety years ago in a quote that is as apt today as it was then, a lack of intelligence infects the press as much as it does the public that it serves:

“[The press] is seldom intelligent, save in the arts of the mob-master. It is never courageously honest. Held harshly to a rigid correctness of opinion by the plutocracy that controls it with less and less attempt at disguise, and menaced on all sides by censorships that it dare not flout, it sinks rapidly into formalism and feebleness.”

Editor's Note: You can write to Eric Alterman here.

Slacker Friday

Four things to look at this week.

1) “Think Again: Inequality and America’s Antiquated Politics

2) From Dissent, “Something about Christopher

3) From The Nation, “The Problem With Peretz“ (And how happy must this make Marty? “A record number of Muslim workers [were] complaining of employment discrimination, from co-workers calling them “terrorist” or “Osama” to employers barring them from wearing head scarves or taking prayer breaks.”)

4) I guest edited the Forward’s op page this week, and solicited this fine (but badly titled) piece by Cabalist Matt Duss, “Some Zionist Groups Stoke Fear Of Islam for Political Profit,” and Shai Held, “Daring To Dream With God,”

Now here’s Charles:


Hey Doc:

"Got my work clothes on for love and sweat and dirt/all this holy dust upon my face and shirt."

Weekly WWOZ Pick To Click: "Growlin' Dog" (Harlem Hamfats)—Once again I forgot to dip into my campaign funds, pay for a bunch of bowling, and then use what was left to buy a billboard in Delaware telling people how much I love New Orleans.

Part The Only—My usual NPR gig brought me to Oklahoma City this week. I spent the morning at the extraordinary memorial that has been built on the site of where the Alfred Murrah Building once stood. It is something I can recommend to every citizen of this country. Come here. Stand by the reflecting pool. Look at the stark, lovely chairs, each of them representing one of the 168 people that Timothy McVeigh murdered out of his twisted, moronic interpretation of what this country is all about. Think about what Americans can do to each other.

(And, not for nothing, but the Oklahoma City Memorial is so moving that it convinced me that the best thing that could be built at Ground Zero in New York is nothing. Screw your real estate values. That's a gravesite. Make a park.)

The event was 15 years ago last April. Did anyone notice a conspicuous anniversary package on any of the major networks, on your local news? Did any major politician give a speech? Did anyone put on their "NEVER FORGET" T-shirt and parade around? Oklahoma City has become lost in the din of what happened on 9/11, but it's not just because one event was so much bigger than the other, and it's not because of the fact that what the country did in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was so far more garish than what happened in the wake of the bombing here. (Remember? Bill Clinton told talk-radio people that they might want to modify their sales pitches to the lunatic fringe, and Rush Limbaugh told his audience that Clinton was preparing to round them up.) The reason "Oklahoma City" is not the iconic event that "9/11" is because, while the Oklahoma City bombing was no less of an attack, it was something that a couple of Americans did to their fellow citizens, and we don't like to admit the fact that there is a barely bridled wildness at the heart of our modern politics, and we certainly don't want to admit that there are politicians on the American Right playing footsie now with the people who bring guns to public meetings and who wear that same "Tree Of Liberty" T-shirt that McVeigh liked to wear.

We don't want to admit it, so we excuse it, concocting cowardly rationalizations and rhetorical amnesia. It simply ought not to be acceptable political dialogue in this country to talk about replenishing trees with blood, and locking and loading, and Second Amendment Solutions. People who employ such rhetoric should be listened to and then shunned by the body politic, not valued for the enthusiasm that they bring to campaigns, or the spice they bring to the political scene. I want those people to come here and shut up and think about the logical consequences of what they are proposing as an interpretation of the country's history and as a vision for the country's future. Come here, the lot of you. See what can happen.

Stephen Carver
Los Angeles
Dr. A: loved the review of Hitchens' book. It seems to me, not personally knowing the man, that his life seems to have become an example of the truism: Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it. Based on your review, I will be reading his book. I wish him well in his fight against cancer.

Editor's Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

People With Problems

Four things to look at this week.

1) “Think Again: Inequality and America’s Antiquated Politics

2) From Dissent, “Something About Christopher” 

3) From The Nation, “The Problem With Peretz“ (Let the personal abuse commence…)

4) I guest-edited the Forward’s op-ed page this week and solicited this fine (but badly titled) piece by Cabalist Matt Duss, “Some Zionist Groups Stoke Fear of Islam for Political Profit,” and Shai Held's “Daring to Dream With God.”

OK, a fifth thing, which I mentioned last week:

This Friday in New York City, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka and Working America executive director Karen Nussbaum will take part in a panel discussion on “Which Way for the Working Class? Elections 2010 and Beyond.”

They will be joined by: New York Times columnist Bob Herbert; Eric Alterman, journalist and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress; and moderator Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation.

Sponsored by Working America and the AFL-CIO, the discussion will center on the issues and viewpoints of working men and women at the tipping point and what can be done to shift the balance in the November elections and beyond. The event will take place from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the Great Hall at Cooper Union. It is free and open to the public, but please RSVP to RSVP@workingamerica.org.

Alter reviews:

The Dead's fall 1989 tour began with a couple of surprise shows at Hampton Coliseum in Virginia. They caused a lot of controversy among Deadheads as well as among the people in the community who were not that crazy about Deadheads. Now Rhino’s come forward with this really fun-looking six-CD, two-show box set. It comes packaged in a wooden replica of a cigar box (Virginia being a tobacco state dating back to colonial times), and is filled with all sorts of museum gift shop style tchotchkes, from a photo-laden historical essay to various pieces of cool memorabilia. It’s also really well recorded. I don’t know anyone who thinks the Brent Mydland years were the band’s best, but these are among the best recorded concerts of the band you’ll hear, and in addition to a terrific "Help/Slip/Frank," you get a “Hey Jude,” a “Stuck Inside of Mobile” and a really fine “Music Never Stopped” (though that is my taste--you might have different taste, assuming you’re up for the hefty investment). It won’t be out for a few weeks, but you can preorder it at the Dead’s site (oh, wait, there’s a Barton Hall 1980 show for sale there too. I was at that one. Don’t ask me anything about it, though.)

Also out is a new deluxe version of Station to Station by David Bowie, which turns out to be great. I sort of the missed the whole Bowie thing when it happened, and I find it to be really great stuff as it is so nicely rereleased. This new Legacy edition comes with the CD, of course, but also a two-CD 1976 Long Island show with nice audio. There’s no new video though, just these three CDs, a pretty decent booklet, some postcards, etc. There’s a crazily expensive deluxe edition for collectors that comes with vinyl, but at this price these three discs feel like a steal. Beware the diamond dogs.

Here’s Reed:

Don’t Ask, Just Tell

I served in the US Army alongside a gay officer.

OK, that’s a bit of a dramatic understatement, as I probably served with lots of gay officers, but in one case, I personally knew of a fellow lieutenant in my engineer battalion who was gay. It wasn’t his choice to reveal this to me and a few other junior officers, but the evidence was abundantly clear. (An ill-timed message left by a former paramour on a not-so-private voicemail machine eliminated any doubt.) This all happened in the spring of 1995, not more than a year after the military’s controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy had been implemented.

Now, this officer and I weren’t close friends, more like acquaintances, but I did have a particularly unique insight into his character. As it happened, he had previously led the exact same platoon that I was, at the time, in charge of, and from my impressions of his lasting impact there as well as the praise that former soldiers and NCOs who had been in his charge heaped upon him, he was an exemplary officer. So, when a few of us did find out he was gay, we took it upon ourselves to do absolutely nothing about it.

Don’t get me wrong, our silence wasn’t grounded in some aggrieved sense of noble opposition to the DADT policy. In fact, our choice was more of a practical, almost selfish one—if you have to go downrange, by God, you want as many good soldiers wearing the same uniform next to you as possible. Full stop. End of discussion. Depriving our battalion and, on a larger scale, the military of his skills solely because of his sexual orientation, something he had clearly demonstrated had absolutely no bearing on his performance, would have just been totally counterproductive and stupid, dangerous even. It would have been just as wrong as if this officer had been prevented from serving simply because of his skin color (he was African-American). The revelation that he was gay didn’t make him any less of a soldier, in other words; it just made him more human.

All of which is to say that Congress proved deserving of its dreadful approval ratings once again this week when forty-two senators decided to block the repeal of this costlyunpopular and obviously unnecessary military policy. Thanks to the fact that one political party now worships solely at the altar of unmitigated spite and that the other displays all the strategic cunning of a football team that punts on first and ten, what should be a legislative no-brainer instead turned into a task akin to passing a law mandating the public drowning of puppies on Christmas. While there’s a lot of blame to go around for this failure to live up to our nation’s principles, some special consideration must be paid to a few of the more gutless members of the “world’s greatest deliberative body.”

Deserving of a special “maverick” brand of opprobrium is Senator John McCain, who famously passed the buck by saying these words to Chris Matthews on Hardball not four years ago:

“But the day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, 'Senator, we ought to change the policy,' then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it because those leaders in the military are the ones we give the responsibility to."

Now, when the military leadership of 2010 is saying exactly that, McCain’s courage has wilted under the glare of the campaign lights and he has decided to go back on his word by lying through his teeth not only about his phony objections to voting on the defense authorization in the first place but about the specific consequences of keeping DADT in place as well.

Senators Snowe and Collins from Maine also join him in the race for most inane ability to outmaneuver one’s own supposed position on the issue. Both of them say they are for repealing DADT, but when it comes time to actually doing it, well…. To be sure, Collins’s speech on the floor of the Senate Tuesday was an eloquent dismantling of the DADT policy and the myths that undergird it.  But then, at the end of her time, she says this:

Now, Mr. President, I find myself on the horns of a dilemma. I support the provisions in this bill. I debated for them; I was the sole Republican on the Committee that voted for the Lieberman-Levin language on don't ask, don't tell. I think it's the right thing to do, I think it's only fair. I think we should welcome the service of these individuals who are willing and capable of serving their country. But I cannot vote to proceed to this bill under a situation that is going to shut down debate and preclude Republican amendments. That too is not fair.

But prioritizing the Senate minority’s wish to use as many parliamentary delay tactics as they want over the right of tens of thousands of gay servicemembers to serve openly isn’t really a dilemma at all. It’s simply choosing to appease the campaign narrative of your party’s leadership instead of doing what you say you want to do. If only Collins would heed the advice given in the Senate just a bit later that same day: "Now is not the time to play politics simply because an election is looming in a few weeks."

Of course, the wise senator who said that was none other than Collins.

The reasoning behind the sudden appearance of all these flimsy excuses not to repeal DADT is a growing realization by the Republicans that once the military’s review of the policy is complete on December 1, there will be absolutely no more political cover for supporting DADT. That’s because there simply is no basis in fact for this discriminatory policy, as an exhaustive Palm Center study of more than two dozen different militaries, including Israel and Great Britain, concluded earlier this year:

Opponents raised concerns that an inclusive policy [toward homosexuals] would undermine morale, recruitment, retention, cohesion and discipline, and pointed to polls suggesting that service members would leave if bans were lifted. Yet the reality was far different from the scenario painted by opponents, and consistent research by those militaries, as well as by independent scholars and observers, found that the new policies were uniformly successful, and in many cases improved the climate in their armed forces.

But by the time the Defense Department DADT review is released this winter, it will be too late to do anything legislatively, as the new, more Republican Congress definitely won’t have nearly enough votes or any interest to repeal the law. So the party that seemingly never misses an opportunity to declare its dedication to the troops and belief in strong national security will have gotten what it wants his by refusing to listen to those same military leaders and missing a chance to improve the climate and readiness of our armed forces in the time of two ongoing wars—suck on that, Mr. President.

This is why our commander in chief has but one moral (and shrewdly political) course of action. If DADT has not been outright repealed by December 1, he should issue an executive order the very next day stopping all military discharges that would otherwise occur under the DADT policy. Though Obama can’t change the law by executive fiat, this action does fall under his authority, as a separate Palm Center study explains:

Under 10 U.S.C. § 12305 (“Authority of the President to Suspend Certain Laws Relating to Promotion, Retirement, and Separation”), Congress grants the President authority to suspend the separation of military members during any period of national emergency in which members of a reserve component are serving involuntarily on active duty. We believe that issuing such an order would be beneficial to military readiness, as it would minimize the chances of replaying a debate that is already largely settled but could still inflame the passions of some in the military. Once gay people are officially serving openly in the military, it will become clear to those with concerns about the policy change that service by openly gay personnel does not compromise unit cohesion, recruiting, retention or morale. This in turn will make it easier to secure the passage of the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (MREA) in Congress, which would repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

If this president wishes to reclaim his momentum, live up to the ideals that fueled his campaign, and simply do the right thing for our country, this is a long overdue way to achieve all three. Fifteen years after I saw firsthand the inequity behind such a policy, it’s way past time to correct it. It’s time to honor the sacrifices of those who are serving and have served, and who paid the ultimate price in defense of our nation, by letting each and every soldier, sailor, airman and marine from here on out fulfill his or her duty without having to hide his or her humanity while doing it. When asking for change doesn’t work, Mr. President, it’s time to start ordering some.

The mail:

Michael Green
Las Vegas, NV
Brother Pierce, if you are glad that anything has passed the recent Congress when Republicans were determined, for reasons involving their hatred of America and their disdain for the "otherness"—read skin color—of Barack Obama, to block all of it, thank the guy you dismiss as having taken too many punches to the head.  Harry Reid is the one who got the legislation through the Senate, and any Democrat in that body will tell you so.

Editor's Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Slacker Friday

All, I’ve got is a new “Think Again:” The World as It "Ought to Be," which is here.

Perhaps, however, this is a good week to go back and take a look at some of Marty Peretz’s greatest hits here.

Also, next week I’m doing a panel, which Katrina is moderating, called “Which Way for the Working Class? Elections 2010 and Beyond"

Friday, September 24, 2010
3:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m.

The Great Hall at Cooper Union
51 Astor Place
New York, NY 10003

Moderated by Katrina vanden Heuvel, Editor & Publisher, The Nation

Confirmed panelists:
Eric Alterman, Journalist and Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
Bob Herbert, the New York Times
Richard Trumka, President, AFL-CIO
Karen Nussbaum, Executive Director, Working America

Now here's Charles

Hey Doc:
"You're the color of the sky in every storefront windowpane/You're the whispering and the sighing of my tires in the rain."   

Weekly WWOZ Pick To Click—"Bat's Blues" (Alvin Batiste)—I don't care what anyone says, my love of New Orleans will be consummated any time I damn well please.

Part The First: OK, I've read this damn thing four times, and all I can see is a functioning definition of being too clever by half. Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't they essentially hiring Elizabeth Warren to help them pick out someone else to fill a job she essentially invented, and which she should have been doing for three months already? Two questions—as a presidential "advisor," doesn't this put Warren at the mercy of the White House political apparatus (Hi, Rahm!) and, thus, already on the fast track to Christina Romerland? And, also, exactly how is she empowered in this job to do very much of anything?    

Part The Second: Glenn Greenwald is right here, except when he is being wrong. He's right to call out the laughable specter of Karl Rove as the arbiter of political "character." (The only thing Rove should be the arbiter of at the moment is what movie they're showing tonight in the rec-hall at Allenwood, but I digress.) He is also right that Christine (Wank On, Wank Off) O'Donnell isn't that far out compared to a great number of longtime established Republican politicians. (Yo, Jim Imhofe! Whut, whut!) However, please to be giving me a break on her being in any way representative of the people in the country in dire economic peril. By all accounts, including that of her former campaign-manager, O'Donnell is a career deadbeat, and not averse to living off the campaign donations sent to her by suckers with time—and likely, little else—on their hands.

Part The Third: Holy mother of god, how did this man ever get elected to anything? When he was boxing, exactly how many times did he hit himself in the head?    

Part The Fourth: A new gig.You should bookmark the blog anyway.    

Part The Penultimate: OK, Alter-music drones, here's my question, which came to mind in the middle of the Great IPod Reload Of 2010. In Van Morrison's "Street Choir"—the final cut on his most underrated album—is the first line in every chorus to be read, "Why did you leave America?" or "Why did you leave, America?" The comma makes the line much more interesting, I think.    

Part The Ultimate: In 1994, I had to fly to Mississippi the day after the Republicans took over the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time since God was a boy.  Jeebus, were people there happy. There was barely enough bourbon at Hal and Mal's to make life marginally tolerable. This upheaval was led by Newt Gingrich, a former backbench bomb-tosser who, only four years earlier, in an election almost nobody watched and even fewer people remember, came within 978 votes of losing his seat to a Democrat named David Worley who got submarined by his national party, a decision that should have some people still hanging by their thumbs in Washington. Two years later, he almost lost a giftwrapped primary to someone named Herman Clark. On that day in 1994, when everybody—and I mean everybody, read some of the tripe that was written back then, I mean, seriously, there were folks at Time who were picking out silver patterns—was calling Newt a visionary intellectual leader for the new century or some such rot, I was wondering how the new Churchill could be someone who was life-and-death with David Worley and Herman Clark back home in consecutive elections. And that was before we all knew about his mad wife-dumping skillz.    

Well, it seems that the momentum of conservative bullshit has caught up with Newt, and maybe gone past him. The Right has constructed an entire self-contained political BioSphere. It has its own science; every single GOP senatorial candidate in New Mexico, New Hampshire, and New York is a climate-change denier. It also has its own history. This is what's driving the intellectual side of the coming election. This history has its Ur-texts; Charles Murray's The Bell Curve is one of them. But things have really been heating up over the past decade, as rightwing designer history from rightwing design shops found its mass audience. The weird signs accusing the president of being a fascist and a socialist simultaneously can't be understood without reading Liberal Fascism, Jonah Goldberg's hawk-a-loogie doorstop from a few years back. Along with gold swindlers and glycerined tears, Glenn Beck's bunco schemes include the construction of his own personal animatronic Founding Fathers, all of whom speak in the voices Glenn hears in his head.    

This is not really about creating a counterhistory, though. This is about creating a simulacrum of history, just as Gingrich is a simulacrum of a historian. It's about creating a salable narrative that can put a faint intellectual gloss on what you are prone to believe anyway. Narratives are more malleable than actual history is, and more easily dispensed once you achieve the political power for which you created the narrative—and, ultimately, this self-contained political universe—in the first place. So, when Newt recently summoned up his professor's voice and accused Barack Obama of acting out of "a Kenyan anti-colonial worldview" that the president imbibed from his late father, he borrowed the trope from a piece in Forbes by the noted charlatan and Mark Warren-fearing coward Dinesh D'Souza, which is rather like getting your drinking water from one of those pig lagoons in North Carolina, but never mind.The important thing to watch was how a rather, ahem, unique view of history went so smoothly from a reputed conservative thinker to an allegedly intellectual Republican politician and thence to a public so credulous that it may be well on its way to electing an entire Congress full of walking, talking produce.    

Twenty years ago, 978 votes would have meant the end of Newt Gingrich's political career. People should remember that. P.S—And, to my friend, Greg, a limited rebuttal, aimed specifically at his final paragraph, and this conclusion: "We have to put processes in place to prevent it happening again in the future, to be sure, and be vigilant about that." There has been no indication that the current administration is prepared to do either the former, or the latter, and especially not the former. In fact, it recently won a famous victory in federal court in which it argued that it has been right to do precisely the opposite. Which, alas, disgusts me.

Daphne Chyprious
Springfield, Ill.

Not until coming across the well-known "I don't know what you're getting at (here)" in the context of Mr. Richardson's piece did I realize that the phrase usually translates as "I know exactly what you're saying but I'm gonna play dumb in order to avoid having to defend myself."

Frank Lynch
Really Not Worth Archiving
Hi Eric,
Mostly emailing about a link correction in your Thursday post. My comment about the New Yorker piece on KSM still pertains, but today's re-run of it sends people to a completely different place than me. I'm not complaining about the lack of traffic—it was wonderful, I had a 9/11 blossom like you wouldn't believe thanks to the original as well as this picture.

But as we both love great history books, I also want to do a call out to a really well done book on the 1927 Mississippi flood by John Barry called Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America. It's not new. It's as good as Robert Caro, and the vividness of his descriptions of the impact of the floods and their devastation... As well as the cold-blooded calculations about sabotaging levees to protect an area, all the while knowing the havoc it would wreak on others...

An interesting aspect I know is relevant to you is the conspiracy of silence which the New Orleans newspapers engaged in, ignoring the crests and problems which were occurring up river.  They all—independently or gathered in rooms—deliberately shut down the warnings, in order to protect New Orleans's port reputation, for financial reasons. It was an interesting cabal, as Barry describes it. And when levee workers, mostly black, died, it was ignored.

It's really a phenomenal book. Can't recommend it highly enough. Give me Pierce's snail mail addy, and I'll send him a copy. And then he can lead off his next weekly post with a line from Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927."

Editor's Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Slacker Friday

I've got a new "Think Again" column called "Forget the Question. The Answer is Tax Cuts" and that's here.

My Nation column is "Money Well Spent" and it is about the capitulation of the liberal establishment to the money and pressure of the Kochs and company, here.

My Daily Beast post this morning is called "Obama's Finally Ready to Rumble" and that's here.

And my Moment column is called "Sparks Fly at a Hamptons Kiddush" and it's about a fight over "Seeds for Peace" and the increasingly nutty Abe Foxman, here.

Hey Doc:
"Once I built a tower up to the sun/Brick and rivet and lime/Once I built a tower, now it's done/Brother, can you spare a dime?"

Weekly WWOZ Pick To Click: "Why I Like Roosevelt" (Willie Eason)—Once again, I failed to gather people on the National Mall, wipe away my heavily glycerined tears, and tell people how much I love New Orleans.

Part The First: For the first time—but certainly not for the last, I fear—the incumbent president of the United States disgusts me. As I recall, I took a little heat hereabouts a while back when I said the following: President Obama is defending the Bush theories of unlimited executive power because he wants those powers for himself. Please, someone explain again how I was wrong.

Part The Second: VH1 is doing another one of the 100 Greatest deals; this one—The 100 Greatest Artists—is apparently aimed at the Younger Crowd. (I completely fail to recognize at least half of the talking heads they bring on, some of whom I am sure are famous singers at the moment. Talking Heads, by the way, are tucked away somewhere in the lower half of the draw.) What I do know is that Bruce Springsteen slotted in at No. 21. And now, a preview of our Coming Attractions: Dr. Eric Alterman in Scanners II: Electric Boogaloo.

Part The Third: Ever since the hydrophobic shit-fit over the Not-at-Ground-Zero Cultural Center got itself launched, I was wondering when this was going to surface again. (The intellectual author of this nonsense is Alec Rawls, son of John, who is probably drinking heavily in the Beyond.) Anyway, further proof that, if you write a book, nothing ever changes. Let us now open our hymnals to Chapter Two for details.

Part The Fourth: I've spent a lot of time working up the argument that Politico (!) is the worst idea to hit political journalism since the passing of the Alsop brothers. Or at least since some offender-against-humanity taught Mark Halperin to type. Therefore, it is really unfair of the lads 'n lassies at Ye Olde House of Mulch for Brains to go out of their way to make the damn thing worse. Of course, if ol' Squint there gets stuck for a column idea, he can always ask Morning Joe regular Mike Barnicle if he can borrow one of Barnicle's well-thumbed Mike Royko anthologies. Here's the official bullshit anyway and I advise everyone to scroll through the comments to learn how Joe Scarborough is a DFH. Hilarious, I tell you.

Part The Penultimate: I want to believe that this story has a deeper immunological basis than the moronic crusade against childhood vaccinations. I would like to believe that a great deal.

Part The Ultimate: No, actually, I am not overly impressed that the president spoke "harshly" about the confederacy of opportunistic morons who have plagued his first couple of years in office. This whole day-late-and-dollar-short administration has driven me up the wall. But I am even less impressed by the notion that Barack Obama has abandoned the principles he allegedly enunciated in his star-making 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. This is because I always have read that speech as being one of the most singularly naïve, and profoundly overrated, public addresses of my lifetime. It was High Broderism in poetic form, wishful thinking gussied up in secular preaching, and I said so long before his hand left the Bible in January of 2009. Did he really believe that twaddle? Does he still believe it now? And, if he does, do people cut up his meat for him? What country does he think elected him, anyway?

There is no constituency out there for pulling together and doing great things. As a result, one party doesn't have the gumption to try and the other one is dedicated root and branch to the abandonment of participatory democracy in this country in favor of government-by-talk-radio. Eugene Robinson was far too kind. As a functioning political commonwealth, we are not selfish. We are not spoiled brats. We simply suck. We respond, always, to our worst instincts rather than to our best intentions. Given a choice between our intellect and our appetites, we'll choose the latter every time and twice on election day. We are about to elect a Congress full of the Mole People because we don't give enough of a damn about the task of governing ourselves to do anything else. And we're proud of it. It's nice of the president to notice, but, really, dude, where you been?

Frank Lynch
Really Not Worth Archiving
Top of the morning to you, Eric. The very real risk of reprisals from Koran burnings was brought home to me a couple days ago in the profile of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in this week's issue of The New Yorker. Subscribers can access it here.

The profile recounts KSM's college years in North Carolina, and the abuses he and fellow Muslims received from other students. When KSM returned to the Middle East, his anti-American views were set in stone. Someone who knew him before he matriculated tried to persuade him that the students which KSM encountered were not representative of all Americans, that all Americans don't hate Muslims. KSM refused to be convinced, went silent, and said not to bring it up again, that his views were "strong."

Editor's Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child...

I've got a new "Think Again" column called "Forget the Question. The Answer is Tax Cuts" and that's here.

My Nation column is "Money Well Spent" and it is about the capitulation of the liberal establishment to the money and pressure of the Kochs and company, here.

My Daily Beast post this morning is called "Obama's Finally Ready to Rumble" and that's here.

And my "Moment" column is called "Sparks Fly at a Hamptons Kiddush" and it's about a fight over "Seeds for Peace" and the increasingly nutty Abe Foxman, here.

Marty Peretz's "Spine": the gift that keeps on giving. A fun game to play with Marty is to replace the words "Islam" or the word "Muslim" with the word Jew: "But, frankly, Jewish life is cheap, most notably to Jews." Sorry, but I just wanted to take a moment to admire the courage of a man who would have the guts to admit what us Jews know to be true, but lack the courage to admit. Wait, wait, don't answer yet. Jews don't deserve the protections of the First Amendment either. "So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse."

True or false? "The New Republic is a magazine that promotes racism and the persecution against individuals based on their religion/ethnicity." We await Jonathan Chait's explanation that, while he does not agree with every word Marty said, Muslims should really clean up their act if they want to continue to enjoy the "privilege" of the First Amendment.

As readers know, I'm rather sympathetic to Barack Obama, despite my disappointments, but I sure as hell did not vote for this guy expecting him to fight tooth-and-nail to keep Bush torture tactics secret and protected. This really sucks.

I read the below in the Guardian. At first I thought it was by the great military historian, but it turns out it was by this other guy, I forget what his job is. "Much has been written about the apparent candour of Tony Blair's memoir. He even concedes that on occasion he stretched the truth past breaking point. And he asserts that 'politicians are obliged from time to time to conceal the full truth, to bend it and even distort it, where the interests of the bigger strategic goal demand it be done.' " This feels like a good time to mention that someone wrote a book about this topic.

Save the Classic, Steve. I was a little worried that Apple was getting rid of the Classic, until I read at the very bottom of this piece that while they are not updating it, they are not killing it either. It would be crazy if they did. None of the new iPods have more than sixty-four gigs and that one is $400. I have 25,000 songs on my Ipod, plus a few books, etc., and nothing else comes close to the 160 gig Classic for shuffling through your collection and being surprised almost all the time.

I'm really bored with women complaining about the attention being given to Jonathan Franzen as if it's somehow unfair. Women have been writing long enough so that we don't have to pretend that the reason Allegra Goodman and Sue Miller are not as popular as Franzen is because of sexism. Franzen is great and they are good. Jane Austin is great. Joan Didion is great. Janet Malcolm is great. Toni Morrison is great. Zadie Smith is great. It is condescending to women to pretend that they are victims here. As it happens, they pretty much run the publishing industry these days. (And pace Carol Gilligan, they are not any nicer about it than the men were.) It's a completely different argument than the one about whether the New York Times Book Review does not assign enough books by women or about women.

I do want to say, however, that the audio version of Freedom, read by David LeDoux, is perhaps the best read audio book I've ever heard, if you listen to your novels.

I was among the fortunate few who caught a David Bromberg show at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett last weekend. Back in high school, I used to see Bromberg often. Then one day he announced he was quitting the music biz to spend life as a violin maker. I went to his last show, which if I recall was in Central Park in 1978 and pretty terrific. I was there for history's sake, which Bromberg screwed up the very next day by making a post "final show ever" which, if memory serves, was at a WLIR music festival. Anyway, he really did quit. For twenty-two years. And was he ever missed. I've seen Bromberg four times since he changed his mind and each time, I can't believe what an amazing guitarist he is. He may or may not be what other musicians consider a virtuoso, I can't think of any other guitarist who is able to speak so clearly through his instrument. It's a beautiful thing. Bromberg also has great taste in material that runs through traditional blues and bluegrass and country and a little bit of jazz. He also writes the occasional killer song. I get choked up when he sings about watching his son fall. And at the Talkhouse, he even graced us with "Mr. Bojangles."

For most of the show, David was joined by his wife of thirty-one years—and remember, for twenty-two of them, he was hanging around the house—Nancy Josephson on bass. It was really touching. She's quite good and she's got her own band, called "Angel Band," is a female vocal trio with powerful harmonies. Angel Band's sophomore album Bless My Sole (7/27 Appleseed Recordings) highlights bandleader Josephson's strong songwriting skills and a breadth of influence ranging from Pasty Cline to Aretha Franklin. The album was co-produced by Lloyd Maines and features David Bromberg on guitar. And it has a really pretty cover.

Also out recently is the new Legacy Edition of Bitches Brew. It's got a couple of new audio tracks, but the real gift is the DVD that features a previously unissued concert performance by the Miles Davis Quintet filmed in Copenhagen in November 1969. (The really deluxe version also has an audio CD of the entire Copenhagen concert featured on the DVD. Additionally, this deluxe box includes an audiophile vinyl pressing of Bitches Brew across two LPs, a forty-eight-page 12x12 book with liner notes by Greg Tate and numerous photos, a memorabilia envelope, and a fold-out poster, if you go for that kind of thing.)

Yesterday I watched this Jackson Browne DVD called Going Home, which just came out again ten years after its original release. It's got some excellent performances on it and an awful lot of talk. The problem with the latter is not that it's all that annoying, though some of the encomiums get to be a bit much, but that almost all of it is in the middle of the songs. So you can't just have a Jackson Browne concert at home. It's cheap though.

OK, shana tova, and now here's Reed.

Reed Richardson writes:

General Principles

Within the US military, it's not uncommon to hear the term "stay in your lane" bandied about. This phrase is a shorthand way of reminding each servicemember that there are certain specific tasks he or she is responsible for, but that there are also many other larger things over which they cannot control and questions they need not try to answer. In fact, to focus strictly on the former and let others—whose job it is to do so—worry about the latter is perhaps one of the most fundamental operating principles of modern militaries. (So much so, that someone even summed it up using dactylic dimeter.)

At the deepest level, this core concept's roots can be traced back to the military's constitutionally mandated subservience to civilian control; and on a broader, societal scale it speaks to the military's strict policy of maintaining an apolitical role in our democracy. It's why it's inappropriate for political candidates to even imply that a member of the military has endorsed their campaign and why military policy prohibits active duty members from attending potentially partisan events in uniform. One would think that the flag officers assigned to the highest levels of the Pentagon and other major, theater-level commands would understand this thoroughly, but this past week, General David Petraeus, who has spent four decades inside this culture and risen to the level of four-star general, stepped out of his lane in a big way.

This is troubling for more than just the obvious lack of tactical judgment Petraeus displays. What can the US commander in Afghanistan really hope to accomplish by rhetorically engaging with an inconsequential, wacked-out religious charlatan and small-time cult leader in Florida who resells furniture out of his church's sanctuary and whose tiny, fifty-member congregation looks to be about a year or two away from the last resort of decamping to a Guyanese compound? I have no doubt that Petraeus is sincere in his feelings that the Koran-burning episode on a date as fraught with political baggage as September 11 could, to use the oft-abused phrase "endanger the troops," but Terry Jones, for all of his many faults, is an American citizen free to do as he so chooses and not a soldier under Petraeus's command.

Moreover, it is simply not Petraeus's job to sound off on Jones's incendiary, albeit constitutionally protected, protest, and by doing so he elevated what was admittedly a growing story—thanks, in part, to inaccurate reporting by some in the national media—into a cable-TV feeding frenzy. In fact, for someone supposedly adept at understanding asymmetric power relationships and counterinsurgency tactics, Petraeus, on one level, comes across as incredibly naïve. His entrance into the imbroglio, rather than helping, actually imbued Jones with much more power than he actually possessed and elevated him to a level where national religious and community leaders are now paying fealty to his "concerns" and begging him to reconsider his plans. That Petraeus apparently didn't consider that this would all play right into the hands of a megalomaniac like Jones, as well as feed the furor of extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is worrisome.

However, there may be more subtle, long-term trend at work here, one that makes Petraeus's comments a lot less incongruous when taken into consideration. In the mid-eighties, our military and foreign policy-making structure changed noticeably, thanks mainly to the so-called Goldwater-Nichols reforms that ostensibly reduced competition amongst the branches of service and greatly enhanced the powers of the Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff. Since then, high-ranking US military leaders have slowly undertaken a much more central, visible and, at times, strikingly independent role in foreign policy decisions, to the point that a 1994 article about civil-military relations in The National Interest was titled "Out of Control." In it, Richard Kohn demonstrates numerous examples of back-room maneuvering, policy sandbagging and outright disobedience of White House and Defense Department civilian oversight by high-level military officers. Most notably, Kohn called out one of the heroes of Operation Desert Storm and one the most popular public figures in America both at that time and still today, General Colin Powell, as one of the worst abusers of unchecked military policymaking (Powell's undermining of President Clinton's gays-in-the-military policy being a prime example).

A generation later, General Petraeus, thanks to his now famous counterinsurgency exploits in Iraq, has assumed this same mantle of peerless military leader and, perhaps not surprisingly, has displayed the same maverick instincts. In his book about the Iraq surge, The Gamble, Thomas Ricks reports that Petraeus unilaterally began using American tax dollars to pay off insurgents as part of his COIN campaign without asking for approval from the White House or Defense Secretary. That's why, though it may be tempting for progressives to approvingly cite Petraeus when he publicly comes out against citizens burning the Koran, military personnel torturing prisoners and our continued housing of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, such a move actually sets a dangerous precedent because not all of these positions are appropriate for him or other military leaders to take publicly. Plus, the same man who condemned torture of detainees also persuaded President Obama to abruptly reverse course and halt the release of photos detailing said torture. Petraeus, in this case, was thinking solely about his command's and his institution's well being, as is his job, but the president is charged with a greater responsibility, and sometimes the latter must trump the concerns of the former.

Ominously, few in the media even raised an eyebrow when Petraeus stepped into the middle of the Koran-burning controversy this week, providing the debate a clearly delineated hero and villain. Of course, the public's overwhelming confidence in the military when compared to other institutions, like, say, Congress and the media, might explain why no elected officials or major news organizations appeared eager to raise questions about the general's impropriety. But for either group to ignore this issue is a dangerously slippery slope. Pretty soon, any peaceful antiwar protest or defense budget cutback could be slapped with a seditious label, and if admirals and generals increasingly become accepted arbiters of what behavior does or doesn't "endanger the troops," then it's a short trip to where they are de facto deciding policy for a pliable Congress and White House that, demographically, has less collective military experience than at any other time in our nation's history. That's not how our democracy is supposed to function. After all, the one decision that actually endangers the troops the most, whether or not to go to war, was intentionally taken out of the hands of the military by the founders. It is the people's to decide and we must be vigilant in ensuring it remains so.

The mail:

M. George Stevenson
Bronx, NY
Dear Dr. A:
Letter writer Terry from Cheyenne's distaste for Clint Eastwood tends to support your sense of his career arc (though I'll have to suggest that my 1985 Video magazine review of Pale Rider as an anti-vengeance corrective to his 1973 masterpiece High Plains Drifter predates your theory) but seems to miss how brilliantly he's played with his own persona, not only in her despised example, Gran Torino (which I'll admit is not among his finest work), but in almost everything he's done since the Clyde movies enabled him to make Bronco Billy (1980), whose debt to Rohmer and Renoir allows its ending to bring a tear to my eye even today.

But her reliance on Sondra Locke's book to suggest that that wonderful actor's career as a filmmaker was killed by Eastwood is credulous, given the evidence. Her debut as a director/star, Ratboy (1986) is little short of embarrassing and only exists because Eastwood dispatched his Malpaso A-team to make it. I understand that their breakup was bitter, her palimony suit was successful, and that women in film haven't exactly been rushed by the Directors Guild. That said, her version of things is a poor argument on which to rest a case for discrimination; it's like Sofia Coppola suggesting that her successful directing career means that critics of her performance in The Godfather, Part III, are denotatively wrong. Being a great actor, as Locke is, doesn't meant that one can't blow one's directing career, just as giving an unpopular performance in a big film doesn't mean one can't have a stellar directing career. It's a performance issue, not a conspiracy (however it might feel at the time) when businessmen refuse to finance a director whose last picture flopped and whose current pitches don't promise to mint money.

Editor's Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Slacker Friday

All I've got this weekend is my "Think Again" column about the anniversary of Ted Kennedy's death (and of the 1963 march) here.

And, oh yeah, I continued my argument with Charles Blow over whether Jews think Obama is good for the Jews, here.

Now here's Charles (and Terry):

Charles Pierce
Newton, MA.
Hey Doc:
"And he don't back down/on the battleground/I love it when you call him Indian Red"

Weekly WWOZ Pick To Click: "Leave Your Bags By The Door" (Sharron McNally)—As much as I love New Orleans, it was nice to feel it love me back.

Part The First: Dr. Maddow is my amiga, but, I'm sorry, the fact that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer pulled her commercials from the local TV station that's been chewing on her for the odd coincidence that the draconian immigration law happens to benefit private prisons in which her top aides have a financial stake is not an assault on free expression. No TV station has a First Amendment right to someone else's ad dollars. What the station should do now is replace all the Brewer spots with house ads on the theme of how tough its reporting has been. Make that Morgan Loew guy, who appears to be a real bulldog, a star, and wonder in your ads why the other stations are getting money from the governor who's afraid to talk to you. That way, you embarrass her and the competition, and you do it to your own advantage. (All of this, of course, presupposes that station management doesn't chicken out.) Of course, unless her campaign aides are drunk, it's unlikely that Brewer wants any part of television for a while. Why should she? She's going to win, easily, and I'm going to drink, heavily.

Part The Second: The Only Man Worth Listening To is being ignored again, while wingnut generals collect checks from fake news operations.

Part The Third: Here is the official entry in the New York Times Nonfiction Best Seller List for Laura Ingraham's exercise in blackface humor, The Obama Diaries: "A satirical fictional journal with commentary, by the conservative political commentator." Remember, this is the nonfiction list. Did I mention that this was the Nonfiction List? Somebody doesn't know his job here, and I don't think it's me.

Part The Fourth: You have to hand it to Mark McKinnon. When it comes to raw, balls-out, front-running opportunistic sycophancy, the man would have embarrassed anyone in the court of Louis XVI. Or even Ari Fleischer.

Part The Fifth: Is there any Democrat besides the guys that hire him that Rahm Emanuel really likes? The hiring of this clown as White House chief-of-staff was the first big tell on President Obama. A career hatchetman devoted to the bunker centrism of the Clinton years and guaranteed to alienate every friend you have.

Part The Penultimate: The hostage drama at the Discovery Channel was a genuine tragedy, and anyone drinking from either side of the ideological trough who tries to politicize The Crazy of it can safely be ignored. But finding out that the gunman specifically cited both John and Kate Plus Eight and the endlessly pullulating Duggar cult… er… clan as his demented casus belli leads me to recall Chris Rock's classic peroration, "…but I understand."

Part The Ultimate: Keith Olbermann is an old friend of mine from back in my fulltime sportswriting days. (Actually, we first met when I was a baby political reporter at the Boston Phoenix and KO was a sports anchor at a local station who was far too smart for his audience. IIRC, there was another rising young street reporter across town named Bill O'Reilly, but I could be mistaken on the timeline.) So I want to thank him for helping to spur me along to my two-day visit to New Orleans this week, where I joined a whole passel of great people working at the free healthcare clinic there. So I'd like to thank KO for lighting the fire under my ass to go down there.

Mainly, I was a people wrangler, and was struck not only by how resilient the people of New Orleans are, but how very much there still is to do in that place. One good place to start would be to rehabilitate and reopen Charity Hospital.

But I digress. Basically, my job was to walk and chat. Where do you go when a woman comes up and says, "I passed my HIV test. I'm so proud"? I congratulated her. How do you tell a guy that he has to wait for an EKG because the doctor thinks he needs one, and he tells you he needs to get back to his job… building floats for Mardi Gras? Most of the people I met were not indigent. They were working, some more than others. And still they came, and it's hard from the perspective of the floor of the Morial center to look at the milquetoast healthcare reform bill that got passed as a historic triumph, and even harder to realize that even that small advance is going to get rolled back and/or shredded by the godawful Congress that this country is preparing to elect.

(There was a conspicuous lack of politicians volunteering in that hall, by the way. Louisiana advance work ain't what it used to be.)

Local TV was there and, of course, MSNBC had a broadcast position at the end of the hall. But it would have been nice to see some national reporters walking around. covering "healthcare" the way it should be covered, and not from the perspective of how something polls, or who hurt Ben Nelson's fee-fee this week. Where were they? National political reporting in this country has written off the people themselves except as data points that do not bleed, or have heart murmurs, or volatile blood sugar levels that may one day cost them a leg or a kidney. Oh, if enough people get together in Washington to watch a public clown show, you'll get some op-ed Mouseketeer to bestir himself to talk to some of them. But the actual people whose lives are materially affected by the issues that all the cool kats 'n' kittens find so entertaining, they don't count for much. I would have liked to see someone, say, from Politico (!) walking through the place. But their interest in politics ends on the sofa in the Green Room. Pity, really.

Dear Eric, After watching the love letter, er love documentary, about Eastwood on the TCM station, I began to put some thought into the artist and his work. There's a cruelty, misogyny and meanness that emanates from many of his films or characters that has always put me off. I'd so admired Sondra Locke's work as Mick in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, a book and film I loved when I was young, but never enjoyed Locke's and Eastwood's film odyssey after. I read her book and did find it curious that Eastwood used his vast power to repress her working again. Seemed weird that he couldn't just move on. Breakups are often horrible, but that seemed a bit beyond the pale.

I've wondered the nature of male/female criticism of rock and film, not that there are many women in that biz, and don't fully know the validity of my gut feelings here, whether they should be even be couched in terms of gender. But this macho American male loner with balls of steel who kills and plunders his way through the country whether with guns and killing or emotional destruction is so over for me. In later work, yes, Mystic River was well-crafted, with great character work by actors male or female. Do not get me started on Gran Torino. It would take pages to say how I hate that film and didn't believe in any part of it, except the main character's ability to hate and perpetrate very sick forms of bonding rituals with the young. Just sure the Hmong neighbors took him to their hearts, yeah.

Just a regular Jane iconoclast here, I guess. Seems to me there are such better filmmakers, so many more wonderful stories to know. He's not my cup of tea. Just one woman's voice.

Editor's Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

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